Downtown Los Angeles is foreign territory to most Angelenos. The sprawling, 487-square-mile city seems to have forgotten the place from which it sprouted. Devoid of the sunny postcard scenes featuring palm trees and the shimmering Pacific commonly associated with L.A., downtown is more likely to stand in for New York and its grimier glamour in many a Hollywood flick. Big boulevards with little foliage and looming buildings that cast ominous shadows are its hallmarks.
Despite the lack of typical SoCal charm, it’s these contradictory traits that make a stroll through what is officially called the "historic core" so interesting. Storefronts are teeming with merchants hawking everything from stereos to wedding dresses. Some of the best Mexican food California has to offer can be found at the Grand Central Market at Third and Broadway, and behind almost every door lies an interior with a story bigger than its façade lets on.
Across the street from the market, the Bradbury Building, made famous by its appearance in Blade Runner, is unassuming until you set foot in its soaring, glowing lobby. Farther down the street, the United Artists Theater looks like it’s slowly rotting, but wander inside and experience its amazingly ornate domed ceiling. And still farther down the street lies the Wurlitzer building: a nondescript office tower with a host of tales that are waiting to unfold—including that of Tag Front’s mini-loft.
Here, on the seventh floor, the 14-year-old firm headed by Iranian brothers Mehdi and Mandi Rafaty set up shop after 11 years in Orange County. "When we moved to L.A. three years ago, downtown was supposed to be it—the next hot spot," Mandi explains. "But really, it was just becoming infiltrated with developers’ thoughts of what a a loft was—open space and a high price tag. Nothing was really happening."
When the firm moved into the 3,000-square-foot office in 2001, their spatial needs as a firm were not quite that big and thus presented the brothers and their two colleagues, Gary Hunt and Chris Perez, with an opportunity that got their minds racing. "We really only needed about 2,500 square feet for the office," Mandi says, "and so we were left with about 500 square feet." The perfect amount of space for a starter home in the inelegantly hewn downtown.
"When we were at SCI-Arc in the late ’80s," Mandi says, "you could get 2,000 to 3,000 square feet of bare space downtown for 40 cents a square foot. You couldn’t get that kind of deal anywhere else. Now, that has changed but we didn’t think it necessarily had to. With the remaining square footage, we got to work developing a low-cost living space that I could live in."
And so the mini-loft was born. The concept was simple enough: The space had to function as a traditional loft—high ceilings, open floor plan, large windows, and the sense of expansiveness offered by much larger lofts. Seems reasonable until you remember they had to squeeze a fully functioning kitchen, dining area, living room, bedroom, and bathroom, complete with bathtub, into just 500 square feet.
After years of designing homes, bars, and restaurants throughout Southern California, including Nacional, Paladar, Ivar, Balboa, and CineSpace, the architects were up for the challenge. But working on restaurants with hundreds of square feet of kitchen space was definitely different from fitting a kitchen that could satisfy a food lover’s cooking needs into a space just big enough to serve as the pantry for one of those restaurants.
After sealing the living space off from the office and creating a separate entrance via the hallway corridor ("I had to keep a little distance from work," Mandi explains), the next step was minimizing the amount of occupied floor space. "I like to have people over and entertain," Mandi says, "so it was important to have a dinner table that doesn’t take up much space."
Tag Front designed a rectangular mahogany table with four ottomans nestling underneath, creating a simple brown block when not in use. When guests arrive, the ottomans slide out and there’s plenty of room for four.
The kitchen cabinets are off-the-shelf models from IKEA, and all knives are stored on a space-saving magnetic hanging holder on the wall. Two floating, open shelves above the Tag Front cast-concrete sink and Frigidaire dishwasher act as home base for plates and dishes, while a convection oven by Sharp, Turbo Air commercial-grade refrigerator, and two glass cabinets finish off the kitchen. "It’s all about creating these setups that don’t visually make the space feel smaller than it already is," Mandi says.
In the bathroom, the efficiency continues. The need for drawer space and shelves was eliminated by the inclusion of the Stylo, an industrial metal bar by Alu generally used in retail displays. The Stylo stretches from the floor to the ceiling; platforms branch off at various intervals, creating resting spots for toilet paper, shaving gear, toothpaste, soap, and other necessities.
The tub is built up from a rubberized plaster by Miracote and finished off with a woven fabric mesh and final layer of All-in-One coating, popular in prisons for its low price and durability. Trying to veer away from the institutional look, Gary Hunt, Tag Front’s designated materials man, found that color could easily be added to the mix, giving a "natural plaster look while keeping the cost way down," Hunt explains.
In the living area, a sliding door conceals the loft from the hallway leading to the office, thus opening the space up by revealing extra square footage in the bedroom. When it’s time for bed, the door slides shut for privacy. In the bedroom, mailing tubes tucked between a concrete weight-bearing post and the eastern wall serve as substitutes for a chest of drawers.
All of this careful consideration for space and cost has made Mandi the proud tenant of a designer loft smack-dab in the middle of the city for the affordable price of $1,000 a month. Most lofts in the area go for anywhere from $1,200 to $6,800 a month, effectively ruling out tenancy by artists, students, and designers, who so often play an important role in urban revival.
But there’s no guarantee that even the arrival of these sorts of tenants would produce a large-scale desire for Manhattan-style accommodations in Los Angeles. Because while downtown has been garnering international attention with the recent openings of Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, most Angelenos still feel much like the New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger. In his review of Gehry’s warbling structure, Goldberger dryly states that downtown Los Angeles is "more or less like the downtowns of many other major American cities—a lot of glass skyscrapers surrounded by a lot of freeways."
Not exactly a glowing example of the classic downtowns that most urban dwellers imagine, with densely packed sidewalks and bustling restaurants with curbside tables. Still, there is always the hope that if more stories like that of the mini-loft emerge from behind the drab office building exteriors, one day downtown will inherit the urban excitement of its celluloid image, rising from Manhattan stand-in to star in its own right.